Monday, 13 July 2015
10th Anniversary Classic Rant: Proudly Unfair
"I've been playing in RPGPundit's games for a while, we all have, and you should know by now that, whatever else you want to say about it.. RPGPundit as a DM isn't "fair". "
This was a quote yesterday from one of my players, after a discussion had erupted in yesterday's session.
The discussion itself isn't really important, neither is who said the above quote (it was Federico), what is significant is that when Federico said it, he was actually basically "on my side".
This might seem weird, I suppose, that the guy on your side would be the one saying you're not a "fair" GM, but in fact, "fairness" is one of the most unbelievably fucking over-rated concepts in Gaming today. All of the related themes and memes too: "party balance"; "game balance"; "challenge rating", even "class balance": these things have radically fucked up a large number of gaming groups and stunted a lot of GMs from being able to reach their real potential.
A good game doesn't have to be balanced. If its an emulation game, it probably shouldn't be balanced. Game "balance" or "fairness" are things that would only matter if RPGs really were like wargames, if the DM really was the "opposition" to the players in an antagonistic conflict. That's where you'd need to worry about being "fair" to your players, about making sure that each and everyone of them got the same things, in the same quantities.
In most good RPGs, this doesn't happen. Create a game where the players are only facing opponents they fundamentally KNOW they're at least capable of taking, and I'll show you a game where things will get boring very fast. Show me a game where players are always getting what they want (like most player-dominated GM-weak forge-style games) and I'll show you a game that gets boring AND unplayable fast.
Story-based gaming is something I very strongly rail against, often, on here. And it might seem like now I'm complaining about the opposite phenomenon; after all, what is all this "fairness" talk other than what the forgeites call "gamism"? If you're against "gamist" play (treating the RPG like the rules are sacred and like game "balance" is the holy grail), obviously you must be FOR the story-based gaming where the GM pulls the PCs by the nosehairs through a pre-created story that already has a predetermined beginning and end, where he has absolute power and already determines who will live and who will die, right?
In fact, story-based railroading and gamist "balance" are both essentially the same problem looked at from two different angles, two sides of the same coin. Both presume an antagonistic GM-player relationship, both use a disempowering ideology; only one believes in disempowering the players, the other in disempowering the GM.
In a real RPG, an RPG the way it ought to be played, you will have a GM with the freedom to create his scenarios the way he sees fit and players with the freedom to resolve those scenarios the way they see fit. When either starts demanding to do the other's job, then you've got a problem.
Its up to the GM to decide what is happening in the world, what natural disasters or "forces of God" will occur when and how. Its also his job to decide what each and every NPC is doing, what their goals are and what their directions are, and when those directions "bump" into the PCs, he decides how they will react to those things, based on what he had already decided about those NPC's psychology and makeup.
So the GM puts all the little animated pieces from his head into play on the invisible chessboard that is the "game session" and sets them moving, in their automated way, with their preprogammed actions already built in.
And the players are the wild card, that the pieces react to. But a good GM will have his "pieces" react to the players; Not change the chesspieces or the chessboard all of a sudden and arbitrarily to get to some pre-conceived end.
The GM doesn't get to pick the end of the game session. Its not his privilege to know how things will be resolved. He would know exactly how things would resolve, if there weren't players and there weren't dice. But those two things (or just the players, if you're playing Amber) do exist, and they take away his omnipotence.
Likewise, the players don't get to decide the ending either, or to dictate how an NPC "ought" to react, what he "ought" to think or what "ought to happen": He can bitch about the adventure being unfair the way you and I can bitch about life being unfair. I can bitch right now about having only five hours of sleep and weird chest pains that won't go away, but that doesn't change a fucking thing. Mark Garcia of Tuxedo, NY can complain about the fact that in 3 months he's going to be hit by a school-bus and drop dead; his ghost could bitch about it to no end. But shit, that's life.
And roleplaying is like life in that sense. The players don't get to decide how things turn out, and they can't bitch about the GMs set-up. The GM can't bitch about what his players do, and can't try to force his "cool ending" on the players, not if they do things that move it in a different direction. Fuck, any GM worth his salt shouldn't have just ONE "cool ending". He should have a couple of dozen if possible.
So yea, I'm "unfair". I don't make an RPG for you to "win" it. I don't make it for you to "lose" it either. I make it, and all kinds of shit happens in it, and most of it is usually damned fascinating shit, and you have to be willing to like that. You have to be willing to like unpredictability, because not even I know how my game session is going to end. And you have to be willing, if you're going to be in my games, to understand that things aren't going to be geared around you being specifically entertained at every step. When I set up a situation in a game, its not that I'm doing it to entertain you the player, I'm setting it up because that's what the setup demands, what the world determined would occur. You have to want to be entertained by discovering what will happen next, and by living up to the challenges that you are presented with (or not), rather than by having challenges that are "fairly" tailored to your character's abilities or what you the player would like it to be.
Because believe me, show me a game where the players don't know if what they're facing is beatable, or beatable right now, or what the fuck is going to happen next; and show me a game where players very rarely if ever get what they want, but if they roll with the punches and think fast might get some small victories (and once in a while, once in a while, a really BIG victory), and I'll show you a winning formula for a campaign that people will keep coming back to again and again.
Well, people who don't WANT to just use RPGs as an excuse as wish fulfillment, either on the GM or on the Player side. Luckily, most people don't. Most players might THINK that they want their character to always have things go his way, but in reality that's not what they want at all, and that's why in campaigns when that sort of thing happens they get bored fast. Many GMs too, might THINK that they want to be able to tell their players this brilliant story, but in reality most GMs, when it comes down to it, will have a hell of a lot more fun if they get in on the "action" of being surprised by their own game. Shit, there's no better feeling as a GM than that sweet sweet moment when you suddenly realize that you have NO fucking clue what's about to happen next in your own game. You're running the fucking world, you're speaking the words of all your NPCs, but you honestly don't know what they're going to say next, or what the world is going to do next, or where its all going to end up at the end of the night.
Oh yea, one more thing: The other week (not yesterday, but last week), I made a serious mistake with one of my NPCs in the Roman game. He fought Eduardo's character, and after he was taken down, my players figured out that his defense was wrong, and a lot of them figured that Eduardo had just won 7 conviction points "easy". On a technical note, that's not strictly true; while I had given the NPC too low an AC, I'd given him too high an attack roll. But beyond that, I want to point something out. Some of my players think that my "mistake" was in not statting him out right, in not writing down his stats, in getting cocky and thinking I could "tweak" the rules. Its not that.
My mistake wasn't that I did the stats wrong; its just that I did the stats too low. That's all.
A DM shouldn't HAVE to follow the rules. The rules are there to serve the DM, not the other way around.
Some people, perhaps including some of my players, might think that obliging a GM to stat out his characters fully and by the book is something that will help "protect" the players against GM "abuse": But that's ridiculous. Again, you are presupposing there that the GM is out to get you. That's not how it is (or at least not with me, and not how it should be with anyone else). First of all, a GM who wants to abuse can just as easily do it "by the book" as not; he can make you face an opponent who's twice your level, or declare that he's inventing a new feat for his NPC that only that NPC can have and that lets him do exactly what the GM wants. So to try to chain the GM to the rules is pretty fucking senseless.
So I will write out the stats of my NPCs more carefully from now on, to make sure that I've read them through, and that I'm not making anything too low, or too high. But I'll be fucked if anyone thinks that I'm going to feel obliged to be a slave to the rulebook. I will give him the feats, the combat bonuses, or the weaknesses, that I want to. And you, my players, will have to trust that I am not trying to screw you over, that if I make a mistake of being too weak or too strong, I will fess up to it (and note that it is something that has happened ONCE in a nearly year-long campaign).
If you want "fair", go play Monopoly. Or go play in the rules-lawyering RPG campaign around the corner with people that really care about fair. Though at that point you might as well be playing "diablo" or "nethack". If you want entertainment and emulation, and a game where anything might happen, then its rock & roll on with the Unfair and the Unpredictable.
(Originally posted July 10, 2006)